by Ashlee De WIt
LANSING, IL (February 27, 2018) — It was standing room only in the Lansing Public Library’s community room as more than 100 people gathered for the Underground Railroad presentation at the Lansing Historical Society meeting on February 25.
“We’re shocked,” Barb Dust said on behalf of the historical society. They were expecting a crowd, but the number of community members was overwhelming—literally, too many for the room. Some guests listened in from chairs in the hallway.
Dr. Larry McClellan, an expert on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, told stories, showed photos, and used maps to explain the significant role our state played in many freedom seekers’ journeys.
Not underground, not a railroad
McClellen opened his presentation by noting that the horrible details of slavery cannot be overstated. “Slavery is an astonishingly great stain [on American history],” he said.
The journey to freedom was risky, dangerous, and required a great commitment. Sometimes, the freedom seekers traveled hundreds of miles on foot. Those who passed through here also went through Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, taking whatever opportunity was available—or making their own.
The underground railroad was, of course, neither underground nor a railroad—nor was it an organized system set up by white people in an effort to free slaves. Instead, it was largely the work of the freedom seekers themselves, aided by free people, both black and white, along the way.
The great irony, McClellan said, is that to be free, they needed to leave “the land of the free.” For most, just getting out of a slave state was not enough. They were not safe here; it was just a stop on the way to Canada. Still, the south suburbs of Chicago were well known for having a network of people, both black and white, who would offer help on the journey.
A history of working together
Black and white people working together for a common cause: this is one theme that McClellan highlighted in his talk, and it was especially meaningful to the representatives from the Human Relations Commission (HRC) who attended the presentation.
The HRC’s stated goals include both “to…build a mutual understanding and respect for diverse cultures” and “to be a catalyst in developing civic pride.” According to the commissioners in attendance, the local Underground Railroad presentation was helpful for both objectives.
“This was an amazing event supporting Black History Month and the history of our region,” said Commissioner Jamica Quillin. “To learn about how black and white people worked together, and how our community was part of that—it’s something to be proud of.”
“In my personal opinion, this helps with understanding what African Americans went through,” said Darvel Stinson. “As part of the Human Relations Commission, I want to keep that [conversation] going.”
The commissioners were encouraged to see people from different races and backgrounds sharing a curiosity about the topic.
“I think he [McClellan] said it best: looking at this group, you can see the diversity, and you can see the interest from everyone here,” said Rich Schaeffer, an HRC member.
Local history, local connections
It doesn’t get a lot of national attention, but because Illinois was the Union state that shared the longest border with slave states, it played an integral role in many freedom seekers’ journeys. In fact, an estimated 10% of the 40,000-50,000 people who reached freedom in Canada came right through our specific region of Illinois.
Historical sites are dotted throughout the area, but not always well-known. The parking lot of the Kohl’s in Crete is the location of a home where a couple hundred freedom seekers stayed on their journey. The Metra Electric line passes just blocks from the Indiana Ave bridge and the former Jan Ton farm, a stop for many on their way to Canada. First Reformed Church in South Holland offers a memorial to the Tons for their work assisting freedom seekers.
Gwen Pruitt of Lansing came to the library presentation as a way to mark Black History Month. What she heard about the freedom seekers’ journeys echoed what she knows of her own family history: “My family was originally from Missouri, and then Cairo [IL],” she said.
Dionne Macon found it most interesting to learn the names of individual freedom seekers.
“You know the idea of the underground railroad, but to hear the stories that go with it… I would love to just listen to him [Dr. Larry McClellan] tell all those stories,” said Macon, a resident of nearby Lynwood. “They were trailblazers, truly.”
McClellan and Tom Shepherd, a former Lansing resident and member of the Historical Society, are both part of an effort to continue raising awareness and installing memorials throughout the South and Southwest suburbs of Chicago. A group called the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project is in the process of getting the Jan Ton Farm listed on the National Park Service’ Network to Freedom register, installing a memorial on the site, and encouraging local community members — especially school groups — to learn the history of the Underground Railroad, right in our backyards.
“A very important part of history”
Jeff White, a teacher at Illiana Christian High School, brought some of his students to the presentation at the library. It was part of a series of events that the Illiana history department sponsored in honor of Black History Month.
At the end of March, the group will head up to Chicago for a day-long field trip to many sites that are important for black history, such as Union Station, Obama’s house, and locations in Bronzeville.
“Black History isn’t something that should be confined to February,” White said.
Rita Oberman, a school board member for District 215, thinks that the information offered by McClellan would be interesting and beneficial for many students.
“I grew up in South Holland and thought this was a very interesting topic; this is a very important part of history,” said Oberman, now of Lansing. “I would love to have them come to the school and do this presentation. The amount of freedom seekers who came through this area — I had no idea it was that extensive.”
As the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project seeks to memorialize local sites, McClellan and Shepherd will continue to educate the public on the importance of these locations.
The pair will be offering a Freedom Trail Hike on Saturday, April 6. This narrated tour departs from the Beaubien Woods boat launch and lasts approximately 2 hours. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children under 17.
McClellan and Shepherd will share the fascinating stories of freedom seekers who came through the area, finding refuge from local abolitionists. Pre-registration is required; contact Shepherd at 773-370-3305 or [email protected] for more information.
The Lansing Historical Society invites the community to learn more about Lansing history through its other programs. All are free, open to the public, and held in the Lansing Library’s community room, starting at 6:00pm. The next presentation will be April 22, featuring Coolidge Elementary School: the historical society will discuss the history of Lansing schools, in light of the new construction at Coolidge.
- Black History tour (April 2018)